Dear Ann

An energetic self-promotor, Eppie Lederer was a natural as the wise and wisecracking Ann Landers, advice maven to millions. But her own family problems were harder to solve.

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In 1954, the family moved to Chicago. Within weeks, Jules was hired to head Autopoint, a company that produced pens and pencils that carried advertising. Eppie enrolled Margo, then 14, at the Francis W. Parker School and called on the Democratic political boss, Jake Arvey, assuming that she would repeat her Wisconsin success here and eventually run for office. Arvey warned her to forget it, according to Eppie: The Story of Ann Landers, Margo’s 1982 biography of her mother. “If you persist,” Arvey supposedly told her, “I will worry that you might wind up in Lake Michigan wearing a cement ankle bracelet.”

But the five-foot two-inch, blue-eyed, dimpled dynamo, with her bosomy figure coaxed into form-fitting suits, her face painted to perfection, and her dark hair already sprayed into her signature flip, still believed that she was destined for something big. Through a friend at the Chicago Sun-Times, she arranged to try out for the job of Ann Landers, the paper’s advice columnist. (Ruth Crowley, the registered nurse who was the original Ann Landers-under a pen name borrowed from her friend Fran Landers-had died suddenly.) All 27 candidates were given the same sample letters to answer, but Eppie drew on real experts-U.S. Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas, for example, an acquaintance from politics-in fashioning her responses. Although her journalism experience was limited to a college gossip column that she had written with her twin, Eppie managed to mimic the witty and sharp style that the original Ann Landers had pioneered. She clinched the job, though, with her performance on a psychological profile compiled on all the applicants. Larry Fanning, later the editor of the Sun-Times, told colleagues that “Eppie was off the scale on aggressiveness, that the company that they hired to administer the test said she had a higher score than anybody they had ever tested.”

Fanning, who died in 1971, recognized that the column could become a huge moneymaker, and he could see that Eppie Lederer could make that happen. She was a self-promoter; all he had to do was teach her how to write an advice column. For 12 years he mentored her, at the start practically living with her in the newsroom and in the Lederer apartment, coaching her, editing her heavily, showing her how to hone that unique voice, at once wise and wisecracking. “He recognized right from the beginning that he had something far more interesting, conversation-making than most advice columns,” says James Hoge, another former editor of the Sun-Times.

Fanning was the first of many editors in Eppie’s life who did double service. During the day he blue-penciled her copy while explaining to her what he was doing and why; at night he escorted her to events, “held her coat,” says Lois Wille, later the paper’s editorial page editor. Meanwhile, Jules was often out of town or otherwise engaged in business.

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